Recalled HB477 at center of debate regarding government records, transparency

Published: Monday, March 7 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Utahs HB477, which makes changes to the Government Records Access and Management Act, has garnered opposition since its passage, which may have helped prompt today's recall of the bill.

The bill passed the Senate on March 4, which sent it to Herbert just two days after it was unveiled. Since then, Herberts office has received hundreds of calls about the bill.

[Herbert] is weighing all of the options. Theres sign the bill, theres not sign the bill and let it go into law, theres veto the bill, the governor's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, told the Deseret News. A veto-proof majority passed this bill, so that plays into the consideration.

In the time leading up to today's recall, opposition to the bill grew quickly. The Salt Lake Tribunes Peg McEntee calls the bill an affront to the principle of open government. The Salt Lake City Weekly referred to the bill as an example of 21-century tyranny and David Cuillier, an associate professor of Journalism at the University of Arizona said the bills impact would make Utahs record laws more backward than a Third World countrys.

The main criticisms of the bill are broken down on the Utah Political Summary blog, where author Curt Bentley discusses Utahs GRAMA law and the impacts HB477 would have. In the end, he concludes, the medias condemnation of the bill is not overblown.

HB477 creates a privileged class of electronic communications for our public representatives, Bentley writes. It may very well be uncomfortable for legislators to feel like they are not to be able to communicate as freely as they would like to, and you could see why HB477 would be attractive to them. But a substantial degree of potential public oversight is the price you pay for becoming politically involved.

The Utah Foundation for Open Government also released a breakdown of the bill, countering words from supporters with what the foundation says HB477 really does.

Changes impacting the sharing of electronic records, such as text messages and voice mails, as well as changes regarding fees for records requests are drawing most of the criticism.

In a letter to the governor, Radio Television Digital News Association Chairman Mark Kraham wrote, To now suggest, in the name of privacy, that conversations relevant to the inner workings of government should be shielded from public scrutiny based on the form of the communication rather than the content stands in stark contrast to GRAMAs intent, and indeed to those principles of transparency that ground open records laws across our nation.

Charles N. Davis, a former national Freedom of Information Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, criticized the changes to electronic records, saying, In an era in which more and more governmental business will be conducted through electronic means, this is a stunning reversal. It removed any semblance of public and press scrutiny from a whole range of government communications, forever, in a single section.

On the FOI FYI blog, which is part of the Society of Professional Journalists blogs network, a post states that lawmakers are using changes to the GRAMA law to punish the people they claim to represent.

In this session, legislators made a big stink about how America is a constitutional republic rather than a democracy," the post says. "What they are forgetting is that under our form of government, the people have hired them to do the work of government, and the people have a right to call them into account. To do that, they need access to public records.

In a statement regarding HB477, the Student Press Law Center didnt pull any punches in criticizing the bill, saying, To be clear, this bill is about protecting the ability to govern corruptly and about nothing else.

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